The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards
By Kristopher Jansma
NY: Viking, 2013
[Caveat: I am not now nor have I ever been an “English major,” and I have scrupulously avoided reading any reviews of this book before writing my own. Literary critics will be able to analyze the elements in this work much more thoroughly than I can do. I am merely a reader and a bookseller, writing here for other readers.]
We first meet the narrator of The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards in an “Author’s Note” that appears to precede but almost immediately reveals itself as the beginning of the novel itself. In the brief “Note,” the narrator describes a time in his boyhood when he was not much more than eight years old (“not yet” a writer), and he tells of the first story he wrote -- and lost -- at about that time. Clearly, his young self was the “unnamed boy detective” in his childish story, but clearly, also, the story is invented: the boy detective solves a mystery, turns black marketeer, becomes rich, and secures for himself the friendship of wealthy siblings Xavier and Yvette. The reader has no reason to accuse the narrator of being “unreliable” for presenting the synopsis of what was clearly a fictional tale – a fiction within a fiction, of course, a story made up by a character in a novel. After all, fiction itself is not generally “unreliable.” We accept its world as if it were real, not because we believe every event in a novel is fact.
The best novelists make you believe, as you read, that their stories are real. You hold your breath as Raskolnikov approaches his neighbor with a raised ax. You weep when no one comes to Gatsby’s funeral. And when you realize you are being so well fooled, you love the author all the more for it.
And what young child, left in the casual care of airport shopkeepers until his mother, an airline attendant, returns from her job – what young child in those circumstances would not make up stories to comfort himself?
. . . It is important to be comfortable when you’re just a small boy, alone in a big place. He’ll change, but this fact never truly will. He’ll go on, day after day, unsure if he’s all that different from the day before. Later he’ll look back at the things that are happening now and he’ll think they are almost like something he read about.
For the writer -- for any writer -- fiction borrows from life and invades life in turn.
In the first chapter of the novel proper, the narrator meets his iconic “rich girl,” Betsy, and in the following (freshman year of college) becomes acquainted with his wealthy, eccentric, gifted, lifelong friend and literary competitor. Julian, it turns out, has a close female friend, one who is almost a sister to him, and when Evelyn appears she is the reincarnation of the first chapter’s Betsy. Throughout the book the triumvirate meets at various exotic world locales, their names changing but their identities constant as the narrator continually reinvents himself and reinvents his friends, in search of a way to turn their conjoined stories into literature. And at the same time, Julian is doing the same thing. Who will succeed at best capturing their real lives in a literary work?
Have I made this novel sound too much like a writer writing about writing? That’s a major theme but not the only one, for the various fictions within the fiction are themselves entertaining romps. It cannot be an accident that the female character aspires to the stage. Are all three acting for each other in scene after scene?
After a while I stopped thinking of Jansma’s novel as postmodern and began to see it as harking back to the English tradition typified by Henry Fielding’s picaresque Tom Jones. Like the character Tom Jones, the narrator of this novel is a social outsider who falls in love with an apparently unattainable girl/woman, but -- also like Tom Jones -- his love for the rich girl does not stop him from becoming involved with other girls and women more easily within his reach. Jansma’s narrator is clearly more rogue or trickster than classical hero; he undergoes many trials and has a great many adventures; the plot is complex, and the humor swings through the gamut from comedy through farce to satire.
And for this imperfect immortality, what prices have been paid? . . . How many children deserted, family secrets betrayed, sordid trysts laid out for strangers to see? . . . How many flawed pages burned in disgust and reduced to ashes? How many flawless moments observed from just a slight distance so that, later, we might reduce them to words? All with the unspoken prayer that these hard-won truths might outlast the brief years of our lies.
So far I have left untouched the question of an “unreliable narrator” and whether or not this central character fits the bill. Jansma's narrator is not delusional or brain-damaged or too young or naive to describe his world, and even as the novel proceeds and he presents himself to others with borrowed names, backgrounds, and credentials, we the readers are privy to the deceptions he practices. We are not taken in by his lies.
The airport, the gold watch, the absence of clocks in Terminal A and the wall of clocks in Terminal B, and a lost manuscript: Here is where we enter the house of mirrors, and here, again, is where we leave the narrator and his nested, changeling stories. Are we right back where we started? Between beginning and end are many games of checkers, as well as references to leopards with unchangeable and undetectable spots. Can the characters learn without changing?
I found the ending satisfying, but to understand why you will have to read the book yourself. If you are up for a crazy ride through a house of mirrors, jump on this train!
And now, excuse me. I've committed myself to these words and am now giving myself permission to read what others have written about The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards.